"Tear Up Your List"
The first idea that occurred to Sherlock, when he woke in his hospital bed, was satisfaction that he'd hidden the pink phone safely in 221C.
Perhaps that was not truly the first thought – there were too many parallel courses forged by the multitudes of ideas swarming in his brain to be able to order their output sequentially – but it was the earliest to swim up from the depths of his mind and present itself cleanly, from beginning to end. Sherlock had prepared by putting the gun and the memory stick in his pocket and the mobile and his coat in 221C; Moriarty had shown up for the confrontation at the pool; and when Sherlock had shot at the detonator on the parka, the explosion had tossed him and Moriarty back in opposite directions but with the same force, making them twins if only for a moment, matched acrobats soaring through the air. The pink mobile, intact by virtue of its absence, was still a viable link between them.
But there was that other track to his mind, the one John Watson had come to own completely, that remembered events quite differently. John, dubious but willing, from the slight smile turning up one corner of his mouth, to believe that Sherlock really would eat leftover risotto, speak pleasantly to Mycroft, and do the shopping for milk and beans and other staples. John, heading out into the night in that appallingly inadequate jacket, his hair gone appealingly shaggy and his step lighter than it had been for days. John, emerging from the changing rooms at the pool blinking like he'd been shut in the dark and Sherlock was the sun, the lines on his face that usually flickered like ripples in living water suddenly looking deeply and painfully carved. John, staggering once the dangerous burden was lifted from his body, trembling like a current was buzzing against his skin. John, brave as his history promised, nodding that he trusted Sherlock, then being thrown back by the force of the blast.
Sherlock turned his head to let his eyes confirm what he'd already deduced from the soft sounds catalogued by his ears and the relaxed state of his own body. John Watson was in the next hospital bed, the only other one in this large private room, and he was asleep.
Technology could always be hacked. Playing cat versus mouse, snake versus mongoose, some vague notion of justice versus some vague notion of anarchy in a public forum like Sherlock's website or even a supposedly private one like the pink mobile meant that, elliptical as the references were, people other than the intended recipient could access the messages and interfere.
Which was no doubt why Moriarty had decided to move their tête-à-tête forward by means of handwritten notes delivered by post. Not even Mycroft could have traced all of them, delivered as they were by a number of carriers, their times of receipt varying by as much as six hours and hindered by shift changes, unpredictable weather, and holiday schedules. And not even Mycroft's bloody assistant, so very up to the minute with all her gadgetry, could reverse the flow of her abilities in order to get an advance look at any of the notes; her BlackBerry gave her access to all of MI6's most secret surveillance files, but the simplicity of pen and paper defeated her.
Sherlock loved it, seeing the top-shelf, cloth-like stationery overlaid with the rather decorative script of Jim's hand rendered in a particularly opaque black ink. There was a definite satisfaction in holding something that the man he would destroy had held only hours before. Each of them started the same way – My Dear – and there the satisfaction ceased; Sherlock could not help remembering Moriarty's grating voice uttering those syllables, smiling as he contemplated the destruction of John Watson, the first domino to knock flat if he wanted to defeat Sherlock Holmes.
It might have worked, had John not nodded, giving the permission to destroy him to Sherlock, who, as the only one who would be destroyed in return by the loss, was the only one with the right of life and death over his friend. John had understood all of it from the beginning – this caring lark was a double-edged weapon, but one Moriarty couldn't even dream of wielding. At times, John very much resembled a genius.
A pet requires constant supervision, cat always wanting you to see what it could drag in, blood everywhere. Rather messy, don't you think? Lucky clean-up doesn't cost much.
More florid than the previous notes, but certainly in keeping with the man's verbal tics. And the symmetry Moriarty had insisted on in person – the notion that he and Sherlock were two sides of the same coin – was evident again in the possessiveness of both the salutation and the closing.
As usual, Moriarty had worn gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints and tucked the flap into the envelope rather than sealing it with saliva. Moriarty was cautious enough for that, but he evidently trusted that his messages were sufficiently elliptical not to make sense to anyone but Sherlock, heedless of who else might open and read them.
"What's that, then?" John asked as he nudged the door open with his foot, hands weighted down by Tesco carrier bags. He started to organise the groceries in the cupboards that Sherlock had promised to keep free from experiments, looking curiously over his shoulder when Sherlock was slow to respond. "Well?" John turned fully, crumpling the plastic bags and stuffing them in the same cupboard that housed the fire extinguisher he'd bought their first week in the flat.
Sherlock knew there had to be other meanings he was missing, but the reference to "a pet" brought Moriarty's dismissive evaluation of John back to mind, drowning out the other connotations of the phrase.
"Can I?" John asked, coming closer and reaching out for the note.
Sherlock nearly snapped, It's 'May I,' but then he caught sight of John's scrupulously innocent expression and realised John had made the mistake deliberately, to jog Sherlock's mind out of its shallow rut. "You may," he said, a grudging smile tugging at his lips, and held the note out.
John's face darkened as he read Moriarty's words. Sherlock watched him school himself into wearing his "doctor face" – unflappable and absolutely competent. "Chinese alright with you?" John asked, putting the note down on the table and taking no more notice of it.
"But you've just done the shopping," Sherlock said, half artfully evading John's misplaced concern for him and half conscious of their always precarious financial state.
"Tell me what you'd want that I could make with carrots, tin foil, minced beef, and paracetamol and I'll – no, actually I won't. I'm in the mood for Chinese."
"Again?" Sherlock groaned, though he quite liked the seaweed soup at the place John favoured.
"The walk will do you good," John decreed, picking his keys back up from the table. "You've been staring at the same four walls for far too long."
Keeping John ignorant was never the best plan anymore, so Sherlock deliberately tucked Moriarty's latest note into his coat pocket, the better to puzzle over it while awaiting their order. He watched John swallow a sigh at that, no doubt wishing food were a better distraction from Moriarty's poison.
Ten minutes in the brisk, darkening air and they were at Dragon Inn. Sherlock noted that the neon of on in the name had burnt out, that there was a heap of five different brands of cigarette butts littering the pavement, and that the red paint of the doorway had faded unevenly. John opened the door and headed for the side wall papered with garishly-coloured menus. Ignoring the chime of his mobile that meant a call from Mycroft, Sherlock followed more slowly, searching for a new angle from which to rethink Moriarty's latest note.
A man cut between them, quite young, black hair gathered into a low ponytail at the nape of his neck, cigarette already between his lips and one hand fumbling in the breast pocket of his plain white shirt for his lighter. Sherlock could make out the shape of it, straining the material, and categorised the man as a lowly dish-washer eager for a cigarette break to soothe his jangled nerves; there was a thick stack of stubs from a racing track peeking out of that same pocket but no sign of cash to indicate he'd enjoyed even a single win.
Sherlock turned to John to inquire about his selection, but John was looking after the man, puzzlement making him chew at the corner of his mouth. "What is it?" Sherlock asked.
"I recognise him," John answered, clearly still trying to place him.
"Not a patient of yours," Sherlock said, knowing that in that case the recognition would have been mutual.
John didn't bother responding to that, too used to Sherlock thinking aloud. His eyes widened almost immediately. "That's – that's the lad I saw at the end of the bank case, after you'd cracked the code. I saw him the next morning, spray-painting a new symbol across the street from our flat. We were talking about General Shan's organisation and that hairpin and how Van Coon should have got her one of those bloody lucky cats instead –"
Sherlock heard the phrase lucky cat click in his head and took off, barrelling out of the door with John at his heels. The man wasn't on the pavement in front of the restaurant, but the smell of smoke lingered in the air. Sherlock looked up and there, sprawled on the fire escape, was the man's body, cigarette still glowing between his limp fingers. Unmistakeably dead, and while John choked on a curse, Sherlock let go of anticipation and welcomed the excitement of work.
"It's just as he said in his letter, don't you see?" Sherlock asked, waiting for comprehension to dawn on John's face, but all he could see by the amber light of the closest street lamp was worry and regret. It was entirely typical of John that even after the murder, he couldn't piece together the clues laid out before him, but he still berated himself for his failure to read them ahead of time and prevent a death. Even the death of someone he knew to be working for the Black Lotus.
John had no discipline over his own thought processes.
"Look," Sherlock said, ticking off the clues on his fingers, note held tightly in his other hand. "Moriarty used the words 'lucky' and 'cat' in the note, so we should have known there would be a connection to the Black Lotus case. He spoke of a 'pet' and 'easy clean-up,' indicating that this man ultimately worked for him, but in a sufficiently junior role that eliminating him would not require Jim to get his hands dirty."
John shivered, but that had to be as much from the nip in the air as from what was lying above them, as yet undiscovered by anyone else. "I thought the 'pet' was me," John admitted, twisting his mouth unpleasantly and plucking the note from Sherlock's grasp.
Sherlock refused to acknowledge his own similar misconception; Jim's taunt would not find a home in his brain, and he would not reduce everything John was to that one derogatory appellation.
"Ah! And this 'drag in' was for 'Dragon Inn'?" John asked, blanching when he looked up and saw the darkness where the on was supposed to be lit up.
Sherlock reached out and took the note back, scanning it once more. He hadn't considered that possibility, but John liked to play with language in a way that he, accustomed to thinking of it only as an imprecise tool that often hampered him, could never manage. John was far more than a mindless pet or an attack dog on a leash. Sherlock was going to rip Moriarty's smug, outsized head from his slight little body.
He savoured the brief, vindictive high that the resolution's reaffirmation brought him, then checked their surroundings. The street was still mostly empty, other pedestrians too far away to see the body. His observations were interrupted by John. "How did he know we'd be here?"
"He couldn't have," Sherlock responded immediately before considering the implications of that. "Not even he can get all his pieces lined up with so little notice. He knows we favour this establishment, and that this man worked here. Let's go," he said, answering the surprise on John's face before he could give it voice. "This death is not significant in and of itself, don't you see?"
"We should have known," John said, muttering frustratedly, still harping on the same point. "He bloody told us what he was going to do!"
"John," Sherlock said, and that was enough to silence him. "He was not expecting us to be here at the time it was carried out, which means that the evidence left will be so obvious even Anderson could hardly mistake it. Moriarty was counting on a delay of at least a few hours before word of this death reached us, so we now have those hours to work through what his next move will be. We need to go."
John still looked dissatisfied, his fists clenched tightly, but there was no other course of action to take. Besides, the victim had been a criminal, and was hardly worth John tearing his own heart out. Sherlock put his hands in his coat pockets to hide their trembling; he would conquer this new infirmity, triggered by contemplation of all the actions of which Moriarty was capable, sooner rather than later. He only hoped John had not noticed.
John didn't respond except to start walking away. He insisted on calling the Met from a pay phone and leaving an anonymous tip about the dead man.
It was the first death Moriarty had claimed since they'd all crawled away from the pool, battered and lost, three indomitable wills without the bodies to sustain them.
John spent the night pacing, then trying to sleep, then poring over the note with eyes haunted by his own failure. Sherlock supposed that was the doctor in him, that he couldn't stand to see a healthy young person killed. It hardly helped matters that John had a bit of a god complex – the note hadn't even been addressed to him, after all.
He pulled the note apart in his head, trying to make further sense of it, but John's frustration pushed his own eagerness into useless channels. He had better luck doing research on John's laptop. The body had not gone to Barts, and it was well past dawn by the time Sherlock tracked down an electronic copy of the police report. His phone rang – Mycroft again, the interfering sod – just as he succeeded.
The lotus tattoo was on the man's left pectoral – he was a true believer, then, not just a disaffected youth looking for easy thrills – and just starting to fade. Cause of death was a small, feathered dart tipped with poison, shot right into the man's neck. The photographs of the dart showed it to be a miniature reproduction of the spear that had featured prominently in the Yellow Dragon troupe's escapology act.
That tied the bundle up neatly, all the relevant clues from the note and the murder and the victim pointing back toward the Chinese smuggling case; there were extraneous facts, of course, like the disparity in the muscular development of the man's arms indicating a fondness for bowling and the staining of his teeth that allowed Sherlock to deduce the brand of tobacco that he'd smoked. But they led nowhere. Sherlock hated to repeat himself, and he knew Moriarty must too, so the ostentatious doubling back to a closed case had to mean something more. But the bundle was too neat, with no loose threads to pull anywhere; there was something he was missing here, some bigger picture still too inchoate to make out.
Sherlock got out his violin when John checked his watch and ran off to the surgery. He was standing by the window an hour later, still diligently practising his fingering exercises and allowing his brain a brief respite, when he saw a taxi pull up in front of the building. The rear door opened just a crack and then flew open as if it had been kicked rather than pushed; John stepped out, not quite easy, both his arms held awkwardly at his sides, elbows bent so that his fingertips could easily have brushed his clavicles. The whiteness of his lips indicated that he was in considerable pain or a towering rage, and either way, Sherlock wanted to be there.
He raced down the steps to open the front door for John, then recoiled when the smell of vomit wafted toward him. John smiled, his expression halfway between wry and grim, though his tone was light – putting on a show for the cabbie, Sherlock presumed, since the man had tried to do the decent thing and had got out to help John along. "Had a bit of a dust-up at the surgery. I'm not to go back in till tomorrow."
"Fine," Sherlock said flatly, as if the prospect of having John home for the day wasn't settling something inside him; it still surprised him how much better everything was when John was around. "What happened?"
"Pay the man, would you, please?" John asked, trudging up the front steps, and Sherlock fumbled in the pocket of his dressing gown, turning up tiny oddities until he located some cash. "I'm not going to start telling it only for you to swoop in and say you know all that. So why don't you just deduce and tell me, and if you go wrong, I'll let you know." Sherlock marvelled at the way John was clearly struggling to keep a leash on his temper, even though there was no need for it; it was hardly as if Sherlock needed to be coddled from the wrath of the mighty John Watson.
"You were called in to subdue a patient," Sherlock said, following John up the steps to the flat, then leaning in to sniff analytically at John's hair once they'd entered their living room. "He was high, or possibly coming down from something, and he'd threatened another doctor – most likely a woman, most likely Sarah – and so she asked for you, trusting to your military training to incapacitate him without doing him serious injury."
"Bloody great nutter he was, too. Nearly a foot taller than me and twice as wide; I felt like David. From the Bible," John added, unnecessarily; too many criminals sought justification for their actions in holy texts for Sherlock to be ignorant of them. "Strained my coracobrachialis and teres major, struggling to get free of my hold."
"On both sides?" Sherlock asked sharply, unwilling to let John downplay the incident.
"Well, he was doing a fair bit of thrashing from side to side as well. Should be fine after some painkillers and rest." John did that when he was anxious to wrap up a conversation quickly with minimal fuss, dropping his first-person pronouns as if that might make his experiences more universal and less about the reality of him, John Watson, doctor, soldier, flatmate, partner. Sherlock wondered if John was aware of the quirk.
"And a shower, hopefully," Sherlock said, allowing John to get away with it just this once; it sounded too clumsy to have Moriarty's hand in it, and in any case Moriarty seemed to prefer sending cryptic notes and then watching him scramble to try to crack them. "You've only been standing here for three minutes and already the stink has permeated to the point where we'll have to open the windows to be rid of it."
"Ah, I can't," John said, an embarrassed flush staining his ears, throat, and cheeks. "Yes, he threw up on me, got it all in my hair like he was fucking well aiming for it, but I can't lift my arms past my pectorals. And if there's anything worse than the smell of dried sick, it's the smell of wet sick."
"John, really," Sherlock interrupted. "Of course you can't do this on your own. I will wash your hair for you."
"No, you won't," John said, baring his teeth in a parody of his usual pleasant grin.
"I've said I would," Sherlock answered, confused. He wasn't quite sure what expression to adopt while John was eyeing him up and down, so he simply stood still and didn't flinch.
"Fine," John said abruptly. "Help me off with my jumper, will you?"
Sherlock eased it off him as best he could given John's limited range of movement, fumbling when one sleeve got caught on John's wristwatch, the back plate of which needed to be snapped firmly shut. He left John to unbutton his own shirt and had the shower running by the time John came in, seeking assistance to remove his undershirt.
John opened his mouth, no doubt to protest that he'd intended for Sherlock to wash his hair in the sink, so Sherlock simply spoke first. Dragging his hand through the spray to ascertain the temperature, he said, "Really, the smell emanating from you is positively eye-watering. How on earth did you persuade that cabbie to let you in the taxi?"
John bit his lip, evidently weighing his need to be completely clean against his ridiculous fit of modesty, then sighed, clearly understanding the logic of Sherlock's offer. He even smiled a bit as he answered. "He must have realised that even a superman like me" – Sherlock pulled the undershirt off him, and John suddenly looked all of five years old, all disordered hair and wide eyes – "couldn't manage to throw up on the top of his own head, and when he heard I was a doctor –"
"Yes, yes, he owes his son's life to a particularly dogged doctor," Sherlock finished, undoing the fastenings on John's trousers.
"This part I can manage," John said, leaning over to remove the rest of his clothing. He braced one careful hand on Sherlock's forearm to get into the shower, found his footing, and lifted his face to the spray. Sherlock watched his shoulders relax, then catalogued the varying degrees of colour John's skin wore: his hands were still browner than the rest of him, and his torso and arms were darker than his buttocks and thighs, so pale as to look like they belonged to a different person. Water sluiced cleanly off the knife wound that wrapped around his thigh but caught and pebbled on the scar that marred his shoulder.
Sherlock removed his dressing gown and t-shirt and reached into the stall to pick up the bottle of cheap shampoo. He poured some into his hand, then set the bottle back down and considered the best angle from which to proceed. John, his eyes still closed, spoke up. "Sherlock, really, thanks."
John had the most peculiar notions. He wouldn't let Sherlock thank him for trying to save his life at the pool – Sherlock cringed to think how inadequate his fumbling words had been, some dull repetition of "you" and "good" – but acted like assisting with a common everyday function was more than could reasonably be expected.
He looked at his own arms with their pale green underlay of veins and saw that even at his palest, John had a pinker glow about him, like a seashell. "It's nothing," he said abruptly, but that wasn't right, didn't acknowledge his continuing debt to John. "You offer me meals whenever you think I need one; I will offer you a shower whenever you require one. Deal?" He worked the shampoo into John's wet hair, drawing it up from the scalp and then scrubbing that too.
John squinted one eye open and grinned at him. "This is not going to become a routine, I can promise you that."
"Maybe just for special occasions then. Although it might actually be efficient to share –"
"No," John said.
"I suppose it is rather too small a space for that," Sherlock agreed, arms already aching from leaning over to scrub at an awkward angle.
"Yes, exactly," John said, looking amused, as though Sherlock had been joking about the shower's dimensions.
"Tip your head back," Sherlock said, and John obliged. "Is the water easing the strain in your muscles?" he asked, running the bar of soap over the wet skin of John's chest and back.
"It feels good," John said, "but hydrotherapy isn't necessary. Here, I can manage this a bit better." He took the soap and started washing himself; Sherlock added a note to his mental file that John really was unexpectedly limber before realising that his work here was done. "No, don't go anywhere," John said. "Can you shut off the water?"
John stood on the sopping wet mat and dried as much of himself as he could reach, though it didn't look like he was having a particularly easy time of it. He tied the towel around his waist. "You know, you left out one thing," he said, "in your recitation of today's events."
Sherlock leant back, the better to evaluate John. The mat squelched as John stepped off it; John directed him to follow with a look and a tilt of his head. They both left wet footprints on the steps up to John's room, the marks of Sherlock's longer, flatter feet completely obliterating the rounded curve and high arch of each impression of John's feet.
John headed for his open wardrobe, pulled out a fresh towel, and threw it awkwardly at Sherlock before seating himself on the edge of the bed, spine at a forty-degree angle to the floor. Sherlock caught it and saw John's entire thought process unfurl neatly in front of his eyes, which had been employed in watching the way John's body hair lightened from chestnut back to blond as it dried. The sequence of John's thoughts was so neat as to be restful, and Sherlock wished for more moments of such utter clarity around his flatmate: John couldn't dry his own hair, John didn't wish to walk around the chilly flat with hair still dripping wet, and John was not averse to asking Sherlock for help.
"What was it?" Sherlock asked, sated with crisp certainty. "The thing that I missed?" He patted his own forearms dry before he stepped forward and ran the towel briskly over John's chest and back, just once to erase any lingering drops, then started towelling John's hair. John braced himself, hands curling around the edge of the bed frame, so Sherlock could be thorough rather than gentle.
"Mycroft called the surgery first thing this morning," John said, words rumbling out with vibrations that passed into Sherlock's hands. Sherlock frowned, and John continued with his explanation as if he had seen the expression, or perhaps felt it in the rougher swipes of the towel over his hair. "Just to chat with me, make sure we're both doing fine after . . . well, after the hospital."
Sherlock knew he had to stop before he hurt John; he left the towel draped over John's head as if the doctor were a prizefighter, and waited to hear the rest, that Mycroft had complained about Sherlock, wondering if John had commiserated. John burrowed forward until his head hit Sherlock's belly, then peeked up at him with a new smile on his face that was wiped clean away when his gaze landed on Sherlock's bare arms.
John reached out a hand to catch Sherlock's left forearm, turning it slightly to let the light strike it and then running a rough thumb near the cluster of tiny black pinpricks that decorated the inside of the elbow. "You astonish me," John said quietly, voice gone raspy, and Sherlock peered down at him, trying to fit what he could see – wide eyes of dark blue, thin lips pressed together firmly but without causing either dimples of mirth or the whiteness of tension, chest rising and falling steadily – into one of the patterns he'd committed to memory: John angry, John hurt, John disappointed. He failed, and John was a mystery all over again. Sherlock would give anything to know how he did that.
Moriarty hadn't sent any new messages and Lestrade was on holiday, so the doors of Scotland Yard were closed to him; time hung heavy on Sherlock's hands. The cases in his inbox were so dull he could hardly bring himself to finish reading the emails.
He closed John's laptop when he heard John coming downstairs. John's leisure-day routine, starting with tea and the morning newspaper, was peculiarly soothing to watch, particularly since John almost always made him a cup as well. "I'm off out," John said, bright-faced and smiling, not even bothering with a slice of toast. "Sarah just rang and we're off to the cinema and then for lunch. Want me to bring something home for you?"
Sherlock shook his head mutely, reminded sharply that monogamy was not something most people considered desirable or normal when applied to a friendship instead of an amorous relationship. But John and Sarah had ended their romance by mutual decision, and John had even made a comment about "sliding sideways" from lover to friend, so it wasn't as though John believed that there was any implicit hierarchy to be respected; what, then, was John still doing with Sarah, if he had Sherlock there, ready to be his friend?
Questions like that, questions without answers that could be arrived at by patient application of logic, were what made Sherlock want to sink into the sofa for days at a time like it was a cocoon, from which he might emerge days later to find a newly rational, shiningly beautiful world. He stopped himself before he could succumb to the lure of that silent repose, or worse, the glittering promise found in a battered leather sleeve he'd tucked behind the bovine head mounted on the wall; what a soldier would do, what John would do, was use this time between battles to prepare for the next.
He took a deep breath, preparing himself for an unpleasant task. He texted a familiar number and then dressed and went to fetch the pink mobile from 221C; it wouldn't do to allow her access to any more of his secrets than she already had.
"Aurelia," she introduced herself when she buzzed for entrance, as if she couldn't have got in without his express permission.
"Because?" he asked, knowing he'd never get the truth but wanting to know what the lie she offered might tell him.
"Oh, craving Mediterranean for lunch," she said lightly as she brushed by him and mounted the seventeen steps up to the flat. Her hair had been cut, lightened, and swept up into a prim ponytail, and her manicure was as fresh as if she didn't spend hours of each day tapping at the keys of a BlackBerry. "What is it you need, Sherlock?" She sat on the sofa, effortlessly chic, ankles crossed demurely, and adjusted her pale grey wrap over her shoulders. He could have stayed in his dressing gown or even been stark naked for all the interest she was showing in him.
"Does Mycroft know you're here?" he asked, hoping the abruptness of the question might startle an honest reaction out of her, but she smiled gently, telling him without words that she was too accustomed to his rudeness to be handled so amateurishly.
"I haven't had a chance to speak to him," she replied, but that was no answer at all. Mycroft was probably watching the whole encounter; Sherlock wouldn't put it past him to have had the flat under video surveillance from the moment Sherlock moved in.
He hated to concede but knew that further struggle would get him nowhere. "This phone," he said, pushing it along the coffee table.
"Mr. Moriarty's?" she asked, not a trace of inquisitiveness in her voice. She opened her handbag, withdrew a small bundle, and unrolled the bundle across her lap to reveal a set of jeweller's tools, fit for the most delicate of work. "You've already removed the bug embedded in the casing," she noted dispassionately, making no mention of the visible scratches, unmistakable signs that his hands had shaken as he did so. It had been a T9, American-made, readily available, and cheap; Moriarty must have counted on him finding that one and destroying it.
She worked without pause or hesitation, apparently unbothered by his scrutiny. She didn't waste time with explanations; he had no doubt she knew it would be easier for him to learn this way, but he was also keenly aware that she had no intention of being kind. He watched her strip away one fragile wire – secondary audio recorder and transponder, he recognised once the piece was free – and then circumvent a shining circuit – video recorder, activated by the receipt of a text; if he just kept his eyes on her hands, he could ignore all the things that troubled him about her, things he couldn't even name.
Her impassivity, coupled with her self-confidence, unsettled him, made her appearance into a mirror rather than a window; all he could see when he looked at her was his own doubt – was she a true believer in Mycroft's cause? Or was the cause her own? Was Mycroft himself the cause for which she held up the banner?
Mycroft evidently trusted her with his own life and with Sherlock's, no doubt in large part due to that perfectly blank face, but Sherlock was repelled by her demeanour. Her deft hands flew over the phone – GPS tracking now disabled – and he realised he was following his brother's lead, trusting her in turn, with his life and with John's. Every instinct cried out against trusting her, particularly since she could easily be substituting Mycroft's surveillance devices for the ones Moriarty had planted, but nothing was as important as shutting Moriarty down.
She left after a solid hour of work, and Sherlock sank down on the sofa and hid his face in his hands, wondering if he'd made a mistake.
An hour after that, with John still not home, Sherlock heard the pink mobile chime its new-text notification. His hand shook as he reached for it. Oh, dearest, what have you done?
"Does hope spring eternal, Lestrade, that you expect me to trouble myself with a case of mere butchery?" Sherlock snapped impatiently at the detective inspector, whose eyebrows were rising to meet his hairline. "Victor Hatherley now has one thumb. Boring. Unless you are asking, in an insufferably circuitous manner, for John's help in reattaching it. John, does that sound like something you would be interested in doing?"
John shot him a variation of his usual disappointed look, the one that meant I'm disappointed in your lack of humanity and I know you've got nothing else going on; even Lestrade was able to read that, and he smirked, anticipating triumph. Sherlock was not going to let him enjoy it. "John, laptop," he said, holding out his hand.
John rolled his eyes and found his laptop underneath his Edward Gorey anthology and Sherlock's notes on the sources of homemade inks used in prison tattoos. "Where's yours?" John grumbled, handing it over. "Buried in your bedroom somewhere or lying in sad little pieces in the kitchen where all potentially toxic experiments clearly belong?"
Sherlock let John rant and didn't bother to answer; the laptop was in 221C, next to the pink phone and the tiny bugs and cameras that had been stripped from it, where Mycroft's surveillance was at best non-existent and at worst, and most realistically, simply relaxed. "John," was all he said, but that was enough to get John to steer Lestrade away from the sofa, bribing him with a hot cup of tea.
John really was invaluable as an ally, as a friend, but sometimes Lestrade actually applied his doggedness in a manner befitting a detective inspector, and all too soon, he was back and watching Sherlock pull up the official report on the Hatherley case. "Oi!" Lestrade said, sounding affronted even though John had been diligent enough to put Lestrade's favourite dark chocolate McVitie's on the tray with the tea. "You can't just –"
"Gather the information to solve your case for you?" Sherlock interrupted, ignoring both the cup of tea John set in front of him and the chastising glare he got for being so forthright. "It's all here, if you'd just process the information Hatherley himself gave you. He was blindfolded and driven to an undisclosed location, but he was alert enough to note the presence of a road crew twice on his journey: the same road crew, in fact, blasting the same wretched music, thus we know he was driven in a half-loop and back, meaning the end point of his journey was close to the starting point. Running a sweep with a half-mile radius from Paddington should lead you right to the headquarters of your counterfeiter." He held up a hand to forestall Lestrade's inevitable question. "There's nothing else it could be, with Hatherley's makeshift prison filled with boxes of paper and the so-called 'printing press' that he was hired, under false pretences, to repair." Sherlock shut the laptop with a decisive snap and set it on the coffee table. "Really, Lestrade, come back when you've got a proper puzzle to offer," he said and picked up a biscuit, scraping the chocolate off in long careful strips with his teeth.
He tucked his feet up under his thighs and closed his eyes, trying to work out if he'd seen any bills that could have been produced by the counterfeiters. The high chirp of his mobile rang out – Mycroft again, unable to get it through his fat head that calling would do him no good; Sherlock was not going to let any other case come between himself and Moriarty.
His tea was cool by the time John came back upstairs after walking Lestrade out. "Don't," he said, precluding John's speech about how he should be nicer to Lestrade. "He shouldn't need me to do his job for him every time."
"He doesn't, in fact," John said mildly, like the sweetest poison. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, Lestrade and his team manage on their own. But that odd case out, that one that they might solve, given unlimited time and resources, which of course they don't have, they bring to you. Because they could use your help, yeah, but also to keep that fantastic brain of yours whirring along, give it what it was made for." John smiled then, steady and bright. "And you really are fantastic."
Sherlock swallowed, trying to work out if he'd been told off or praised. John brought him a fresh cup of tea, and Sherlock smiled before he could think about it.
The body that washed up on the banks of the Thames was gruesome enough that descriptions of it made the headlines of every paper in London. An unnamed Caucasian male, twenty-four to twenty-nine, his head carefully shaved and the clippings stuffed in his fisted hands and closed mouth, all sealed shut with duct tape. Aquatic predators and the ravages of the river had left him without eyeballs, the fleshy parts of his nose and ears, and large patches of skin.
Sherlock read the papers with interest. The next morning, John wore a grim look on his face as he separated a new note from Moriarty from the bills. The cream-coloured envelope was pristine but the note inside bore the inky imprints of those spectacular headlines.
High or low? Certain things can cut both ways, have you noticed? Be a love and remember that.
"What does that mean, 'high or low'?" John asked, leaning over the arm of the sofa so that he could read the note at the same time. "Tides, maybe? Do you know the tide tables for the Thames?"
Sherlock shook his head automatically to answer John, but the note's content was a secondary concern. The question of what it meant that the note had been sent after the fact – so that preventing the crime was no longer a possibility – was troubling him. Still, he wouldn't know the answer to one without the other, so he located John's laptop and Googled for the Thames tides.
John watched silently for a moment, biting his lip, then closed one hand firmly around Sherlock's arm and half-dragged and half-lifted him to a seated position. "Your hands are shaking," John said baldly; "you need to eat." He took a deep breath, clearly weighing whether he should continue, but John had never lacked courage. "He's already dead. There's time for you to refuel."
So John had seen enough to link the note and the newsworthy body, but had misinterpreted the tremors. Sherlock didn't protest, just slumped into John when he returned with tea and toast and eggs for them both. "Sleep or eat?" John asked, dragging Sherlock's plate closer when he received no answer. "Eat, then, and we'll see if Lestrade can get us to the scene."
It took one look at the scene, or rather one taste of the air, tinged with Thames salt, for Sherlock to push past that first incorrect guess at the note's meaning. "'High or low' doesn't refer to the tides, John. There's no value in Moriarty telling us at what time the man was killed and his body dumped in the river; that's something we can work out for ourselves, based on the body's mass and buoyancy and the time of its discovery and the river's currents and the percentage of seawater to freshwater. It's tricky, but it can be done, and that determination should be verified by a forensics tech's estimate of time of death." He caught sight of Lestrade just ahead and glowered at the thought of Anderson. "Well, a competent forensics tech's estimate, anyway."
Lestrade and John exchanged friendly nods but not words, John looking like he was concentrating on not telling the DI anything about Moriarty's bloody note. "What's been left out?" Sherlock asked, drawing Lestrade's attention away. "What have you kept out of the papers?"
Lestrade gave him a hard look but answered promptly. "The dead man washed up here. He had his head shaved and the clippings – a light ginger colour – stuffed in his fists and mouth. There was nothing but hair in the fists. But in the mouth, the hair formed a kind of base or nest for this." He handed over a photograph of a flower four inches in diameter with wilted petals, its pistil removed and a small compass nestled in its place. A ruler was also in the frame to give a sense of scale. "The flower and the hair were roughly the same colour once they dried, and we had a hell of a time separating them without damaging either or scratching the face of the compass."
Sherlock held out his hand, his phone resting on his palm, and John, without a word, took Sherlock's phone and put his own in Sherlock's waiting hand. Sherlock spoke as he took a picture of the evidence photograph with John's phone. "The compass indicates that the body was meant to be found at a specific location, meaning that the person who dumped it did all of those calculations in reverse in order to ensure that it washed up precisely here." He kept Lestrade from interrupting by finishing the thought. "North of here – where the compass is pointing us – is the Royal Hospital in Chelsea," he announced.
"Site of the Chelsea Flower Show," John said, Lestrade echoing him half a second later.
"Indeed. We'll need to see the grounds."
Lestrade stopped him with a hand on his chest. "No, wait, you're going to answer a few questions first."
"Really, do you suppose that we have time for this? I've already been delayed by the so-called 'necessity' of 'a healthy breakfast.'" He saw John's eyes dim at that, but Lestrade apparently needed a sharp reminder of the imperative nature of the work.
"I'm making the time," Lestrade said mulishly. "Why are you interested in this case? What makes it not just 'butchery' like the Hatherley case? Is this another serial killer starting up? Are we going to be pulling bodies from the Thames all through the spring?"
"It's not a serial killer," Sherlock said; when Moriarty devoted this much time to a corpse, it didn't have to share the spotlight. He skirted around Lestrade, John stepping into place at his side, and left the DI to follow.
He held the phone out so that John could see the photograph, knowing John would allow the gesture to pass as an apology. "What do you think?"
John kept his voice low as he answered. "The flower's something out of the daisy family. Out of season, so maybe Moriarty had to place a special order for it with a florist, or force it in a greenhouse somewhere?"
Sherlock arched one eyebrow, and John smiled. "My mum liked to garden. 'Green thumb' doesn't begin to describe it."
"Botany can be quite interesting," Sherlock allowed. Natural toxins and stimulants alone made the field a rewarding one.
John laughed, evidently guessing at his train of thought. "My favourites were the peonies. You could get drunk just off the fragrance of them, it was such heady stuff."
Abruptly, Sherlock was thrown back into a memory he hadn't known he'd saved, of being small and wearing his most hated outfit, a white shirt and grey romper that managed to leave him both hot – due to the thick corduroy of the romper – and cold – because it left several inches of his legs bare. He had been let loose to wander in a large garden, and he'd been stunned by the greenness of the world and the new and exciting scents in the air. He'd buried his face in the white ruffled cup of a peony blossom and emerged with a bee on his nose; his eyes had crossed in an effort to keep watching that furry little body and translucent wings, trying to figure out how it made that lovely buzzing sound that made him want to take a nap. Mycroft had swatted the bee away and grabbed his hand and brought him back to Mummy.
He came to himself when he felt John's hand around his, steadying the mobile that was slipping from his grasp. "I suppose if I suggest food or rest again, you'll go on playing the hunger artist just to prove you can," John said wryly, as if his eyes weren't broadcasting worry.
Sherlock left his hand where it was for one reassuring moment, then slipped free and slid the phone into his coat pocket. He turned on his heel to face John and Lestrade, two sets of eyes in two open faces focusing instantly on him. "Go," he said, "and try to track down purchases of daisies, or arrangements including daisies, shipped to any address in London."
"I can't just let you go by yourself –" Lestrade protested.
"The site of the Flower Show is hardly part of your crime scene," Sherlock pointed out acerbically while John stepped forward to pluck his phone out of Sherlock's coat pocket; Sherlock nodded and John dropped Sherlock's mobile into the pocket. "It's a public space, and there are not likely to be any footprints or trace evidence left, but there's no point in having you tromp all over it. I'll be back at Baker Street soon enough." He pivoted again and headed for the hospital grounds.
Without anyone around to hold him back and demand explanations, Sherlock made quick work of it, collecting and filtering all of the information written in the air until at last he was standing in front of a plaque with those same orange daisies worked as painted reliefs around the words Sponsored by the Frelinghuysen Arboretum, a partner of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. That was curiously specific.
His phone was not nearly as handy as John's for running searches or for taking pictures with acceptable resolution, but it was more than adequate for texting purposes. He sent a quick one off to Molly and took a photo of the plaque before he left the grounds, more circuitously this time, taking note of the differences in the compositions of various soils as he went.
Molly was far easier to deal with electronically than in person; she was concise, professional, and responsive, if still rather given to littering her messages with unnecessary affectations. The first time Sherlock had seen :) at the end of one of her messages, he'd Googled it, then lost ten minutes in contemplation of how ridiculous a notion it was that he would want to tilt his head, his phone, or his computer sideways in order to make a colon and a parenthesis appear more like a smiling person.
S – Sending the photos you requested to your email address. – M :)
The use of initials rather than full names signalled an attempt at intimacy, though the emoticon betrayed her desperation, and indicated that she knew that had yet to be earned. Still, she had responded in a timely fashion; perhaps the next time he needed to visit the morgue, he would sit with her in the canteen while they drank the rather terrible Barts coffee and ignore all of her nervous twitching.
He opened the email attachments, looking at close-ups of hair of a peculiarly golden ginger colour, then the victim's face. Even after it had been cleaned and the expression smoothed out, the face was still marked by great violence: the thick eyelids sank over gaping holes, the features were eaten away, and the outline of the skull was starkly realised by the shaved head. Sherlock selected the most ordinary-looking of the photographs, silently commending Molly for taking a few that cropped out the shorn head, and set out to find some of the more stalwart members of his homeless network.
Clive and Beth shook their heads at the image on his mobile screen, but Jeannie nodded as soon as Sherlock said that the dead man had had light ginger hair. "Yeah, I seen him," she said, and his hand went to his pocket to find money that could be spared from his cab fare. "Usually over at the grammar school, selling drugs to all the kiddies."
Sherlock made a face – how ordinary – and handed over a tenner. Jeannie looked like a "kiddie" herself, pale youthful face made younger still by the Alice band holding back fine blonde hair. "Had a jacket he used to wear all o' the time," she continued, adjusting her seat on the cold concrete, briefly swaying toward him, and he could smell her, unwashed skin sweating under all the layers of wool she was wearing. "Red and black, very striking." She sketched a lightning-shaped diagonal with one gloved hand, and he made a note to remember that she had a better than average visual memory. "Clashed something awful with that hair of his." She shivered once, then tapped a cigarette against its crumpled packet. "Have you got a light?"
"No, I haven't," he said, eyeing her neighbours. None were close enough to have been eavesdropping, but all were paying attention, as if to warn him of harm should he hurt Jeannie. "But that man, the one in the blue woolly hat, has."
The Frelinghuysen Arboretum was in Morristown, New Jersey. New Jersey apparently had quite a history with the prolific Frelinghuysen family, several of whose members had gone into politics at the state level. Sherlock closed John's laptop and swung his legs over the sofa arm, trying to make a connection between a minor American political dynasty, a drugs dealer in London, and Moriarty.
"Sherlock!" John called as he sped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Excitement lit up his face and when he saw Sherlock lying on the sofa he grinned and said, "Got it."
"Lestrade's running down the credit card and the address; he'll text with all the information," John started.
Sherlock sat up and reconsidered; that wasn't just excitement on John's face – it was triumph. "Your insight about the daisy being out of season was important, wasn't it?" he asked.
"I traced the delivery of an 'Autumn Splendour' arrangement from Holland & Co., an upscale florist in Sydney that delivers worldwide. The arrangement includes dark red amaranthus, red kangaroo paw, light and dark orange Gerbera daisies, yellow roses, flame lilies, tiger lilies, marigolds, Panama roses, and black-eyed susans." Sherlock pulled an inquisitive face and John huffed a laugh. "Yes, it costs an arm and a leg and it's probably the size of the telly."
Sherlock made a mental note for his Index that John had apparently shared his mother's passion for gardening; all of those names had tripped off his tongue without any hesitation or consultation of notes. "And the delivery?" he prompted.
"Anonymous sender, recipient listed only as 'Ashton' without any indication whether that's a first name or a surname, and the address for delivery was in South Kensington. Executive flats on Gloucester Road. The sender specified that a plain black card in a plain red envelope should be sent, both entirely blank."
There it was – the colours connecting the drugs dealer and the recipient of the extravagant and outsized floral arrangement. John yawned and headed into the kitchen. "Don't bother," Sherlock called, knowing precisely how long it had been since John last ate. "We'll go out for dinner."
John peeked around the doorway, a surprised look firmly fixed on his face. "Really?"
"What do you want to eat?"
He knew John's hesitation had less to do with choosing a cuisine and more about guilt over staying silent. John clearly did not want to mention the possibility that Lestrade would get them the missing information in the next hour or two, still less his observation that Sherlock never ate when actively engaged with a case, or his own desire to arrange a stable schedule for eating and sleeping to which both tenants of 221B would have to adhere. "Indian. Paneer and peas pulao and buttered garlic naan, to start with."
"Brick Lane it is," Sherlock said, standing up and straightening his suit.
"What, you've solved cases for every family with a restaurant there?" John asked, smile clearly indicating both his incredulity and his willingness to believe it, if Sherlock said yes.
Sherlock inclined his head at the angle he knew puzzled John the most. "Something like that," he murmured, and let John make of that what he would.
The dark-eyed daughter of the family served them herself, demure under her parents' watchful eyes in a way she hadn't been when she'd demanded that he clear her name and let her sit her Greek examination for the Fortescue Scholarship. Anjali seemed to remember that he'd never bestirred himself to make small talk, and she stayed silent until John's repeated and sincere thanks for all her attentions charmed her.
Her hand was steady as she poured water from a beaten copper pitcher, but her eyes never strayed from John's face, studying it as though she meant to deduce something from it. Sherlock stayed alert, curious what she would make of the familiar worn lines and gentle features. She'd been a scholar of languages, of literature, all the messy fields that John seemed so attached to, the ones without the rigorous bite of the hard sciences. John's gaze went soft and his cheeks went pink when at last he realised he was subject of her evaluation; he hadn't blushed like that with Sherlock's clinical gaze on him, and Sherlock tapped his fingers irritably on the tablecloth, recognising that sexual attraction was once again interfering with and complicating immeasurably what should have been a simple and straightforward process.
"Anjali, John. John, Anjali," he said, effecting a basic introduction to speed things along. He could have said more: I investigated, and she wasn't guilty. I never investigated, and he was. He saved my life.
The two of them were still staring dumbly at each other when John's mobile beeped. "Sorry, sorry," John said, smiling up at her, clearly not wanting her to leave, but she did, taking their empty plates with her. "It's Lestrade," John said, retraining his focus on the mobile before she'd got more than three steps away; Sherlock nodded approvingly. "Here."
John put the mobile in the centre of the table so that they could both read the screen as the text message appeared. Credit card number and address both belong to victim, Ashton Frelinghuysen.
So the connection to the Flower Show had nothing to do with the arboretum in New Jersey; it had simply been a way of supplying him with the victim's name. Odd that Moriarty would be so direct. Sherlock instantly deleted all the research he had done on New Jersey politics and glanced up at John, whose lips and knuckles had gone white, all the softness that Anjali had coaxed into his eyes gone without a trace.
"No," John said, but without the slightest conviction in his voice. "No, it can't be."
"John?" he asked, closing his hand around John's forearm, the red corduroy of John's shirt satisfyingly textured under his fingertips.
"That's Anna's little brother," John said. "Anna Frelinghuysen. The best doctor I served with in Afghanistan. She's the one who performed the first proper surgery on my shoulder." The stress John put on proper was enough for Sherlock to picture him, grim-faced, sweating, and tiger-streaked with dirt and blood, trying desperately to cut the bullet out of his shattered shoulder, bits of bone white in the midst of spewing red. "She had a picture of her and her brother Ace, both of them with the brightest hair you could imagine. She used to keep hers plaited up, but it was still like a rope of fire when the sun hit it."
"Ace," Sherlock said, belatedly feeling the pieces click into place once more. "'High or low' referred to Ashton Frelinghuysen's nickname, aces counting as high or low cards, whether red or black. And he drew attention to the shorn hair by placing it in the mouth and hands; the colour itself was a clue."
John's eyes were blazing, and he evidently wasn't listening because he kept ranting. "She said he was always getting into one scrape or another, but now he's dead and it's because of me."
"What?" Sherlock asked, startled out of his train of thought.
"Look, Sherlock. Really look at the notes Moriarty's been leaving you, at the bodies he's stacking up. That Chinese boy – a gambler, like me. Did you know that? Did you deduce that and never bother to mention it? That not even active combat could beat the taste for gambling out of me? And he was the same age I was when I realised I was addicted. And now Ace – that 'high or low' business would have meant nothing if I hadn't known what Anna called her brother. He's targeting people with some connection to me – God, it could be Harry or Clara or even Mrs. Hudson next." John stood, agitated, hands shaking worse than Sherlock had ever seen them do, too much for John to be able to pull cash from the pocket of his jeans; John had evidently forgotten that they didn't have to pay. "We have to go."
"John," he said, standing and pulling his coat down from the nearby peg. "You have this backwards."
John didn't bother to answer, just brushed by him without worrying overmuch where his elbow and shoulder were landing. Sherlock caught up with him outside, where he was trying in vain to flag down a cab. "Listen," Sherlock insisted. "Dennis Lee was a pawn of Moriarty's by way of Black Lotus, and as such was due to be eliminated within months of the dismantling of that organisation; that he shared an addiction with you is merely a coincidence." He caught John's arm and forced him to meet his gaze. "Ashton Frelinghuysen was almost certainly working for Moriarty as well, whether as a local drugs dealer or as a lieutenant in his network I don't yet know. That you served with his sister must be a blind, John, a way to distract you and therefore me, and we cannot let that happen."
John's gaze was blank, uncomprehending; Sherlock shook him. "Just think! Had Moriarty wanted to strike out at you, he would have targeted Anna, whom you knew and liked, and not her brother, known to you only from a single photograph." He had to think as well, work out what it meant that Moriarty was willing to sacrifice his own people for the sake of this new game.
John's throat was working, clicking as he tried to swallow and then give voice to the thoughts slowly unfurling in his mind. "Then – Harry's safe?"
"As safe as anyone in London can be while Moriarty is still loose," Sherlock promised without a qualm. He was starting to like Harry, but John and Moriarty had to come first.
A wan smile flickered on John's face. "Cold comfort, but I know I can trust you," John said finally.
"Always," Sherlock said, throwing up his hand for a cab and hustling John into it once one arrived. He gave the driver Ace's address. He kept silent during the drive, trying to find a deeper meaning for cuts both ways and remember other than the obvious, which was that he and John were both right – Moriarty chose his victims from the pool of people who worked for him, however indirectly, and also shared a past of some sort with John.
John didn't have his eidetic memory, but once he saw Moriarty's last note again, saw remember in Moriarty's ornate script, there was no way his formidable intelligence would fail to draw the conclusions Sherlock had just come to, and he'd be back to worrying about his sister and her wife or Mrs. Hudson. That didn't give them much time, and Sherlock found himself wishing for a way to slow the universe down and let him and John just be, partners and friends without end, without limits. Without Moriarty, who changed all the definitions just by existing and breathing the same air.
Ashton Frelinghuysen's flat was empty, save for a framed photograph of a ginger-headed man and woman that John clearly recognised, the still-exquisite floral arrangement in a vase of coloured glass, and a message painted rather sloppily on one wall, low enough that Sherlock knew Moriarty had written it himself, working at his own eye-level.
Tear up your list.